A Streetcar Named Desire: Half the Magic

Planet Theatre
through August 23
Running Time: 3 hrs

Tennessee Williams has given Blanche DuBois some of the greatest lines in theatre history, words full of wonderful descriptions of her skewed reality, and some thinly veiled references to the act of making theatre. "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," she purrs, night after night, as strangers fill the audience to be transported to a mythic New Orleans, ripe with earthy characters with base desires.

"A woman's charm is 50 percent illusion," as Blanche would sigh, and this aptly describes this production's charm as well. This First Stone Theatre show does a wonderful job of creating the illusion of Williams' New Orleans, starting from the moment the audience strolls into Planet Theatre's playing space, which has been transformed into a slice of the Quarter by Michael Stuart's set design, while two young women, Stephanie Scott and Andrea Westby, listen to records out on the stoop and wait for a summer's breeze.

This cast is full of actors who know how to create illusions as well. Margaret Hoard gives a rich and heartfelt, if occasionally over-the-top, performance as Miss DuBois herself. Lynda Parker gives a solid performance as Stella, Blanche's sister who left the family's dying plantation to thrive in the New Orleans air. Michael Miller's outstanding performance creates a Stanley Kowalski, Stella's husband and Polish "animal," who is sincere and simply misunderstood by Blanche. Daniel Potts makes the most of his part as nice guy Mitch Mitchell, Blanche's would-be suitor.

Unfortunately for this production, there is the 50 percent of theatrical charm that is not illusion, that is based on careful planning and attention to detail. Director Whitney Milam seems unsure of whose story he is telling and, as a result, this production lacks a clear focus and begins to wilt like a delicate flower on a sultry day. There doesn't appear to be any unity of thought here, there are so many great ideas and concepts, like the inclusion of video clips shot in the Big Easy itself, that the abundance further muddies the illusion while none leaves a lasting impression. Coupled with some perplexing light cues and languid scene changes, this production can't sustain the illusion that it is trying so hard to create.

"I don't want realism. I want magic," sulks Blanche. It's what we all want from theatre, but magic can only be achieved through acknowledgment and careful manipulation of the reality that you have. -- Adrienne Martini

Attack of the Two-Headed Woman: Bringing Forth the Crowds Within

Planet Theatre,
through August 19
Running time: 1 hr, 50 min

Walt Whitman once said of himself, "I contain multitudes." So do we all. We carry within us the manifold diverse personalities that make up our current selves and all the many selves of our younger days. And they aren't all; in there are the people we have met or known whose actions, for one reason or another, we remember. They take root in us, too, making each of us legion, the world in miniature.

It is the blessing and curse of actors to be able to call upon these multitudes. An actor will summon some figure from the crowd within and give herself, himself, over to it, letting another's mannerisms and speech take the place of the actor's own, for the amusement or edification of others. The gifted actor can do this in such a way that not only entertains but enlightens, gives a viewer a clearer image of that human and, by extension, humanity.

At Planet Theatre, two gifted actors are hard at work bringing forth their inner multitudes in their respective projects, mounted jointly under the banner Attack of the Two-Headed Woman. Mary Lang and Cynthia Ethel Wood, familiar to many for their expert foolery at Esther's Pool, have worked up a pair of solo shows that seek to take advantage of their talents for creating extravagant characters which inspire laughter. The shows share certain qualities: Both feature characters of Hispanic descent; both have scenes in bed; both feature nuns. And, it goes without saying, both are funny. But as vehicles for actors, for shining light on who we are through the actor's gift for playing a range of characters, the shows are a study in contrast.

Lang takes the outward approach. Her Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop is a journey through the world in which she seeks in others some reflection of herself. In a zippy string of vignettes, Lang introduces us to a half-dozen characters, each of whom is connected in some mildly bizarre way to another. The mouthy woman on the cel phone is a fan of a Mexican singer, who it turns out is the child who was paper-trained, who was mentioned by the woman digging through the trash, who.... The characters themselves are juicy and Lang has fun with them, but she barely gives us time to meet them before she hustles on to the next one. It would be a treat -- and perhaps make her story more resonant -- to see them allowed more time to speak.

Wood's journey is inward. In Saints, Martyrs, and a Donkey Angel, she explores her own reflection and finds in it the parts of herself that have come to her from others -- the set mouth of her mother, the warm eyes of her grandmother, the knitted brow of Frida Kahlo. Wood's is by far the more ambitious piece, attempting to blend drama with comedy, autobiography and fiction, video with live performance. On opening night, these elements repeatedly resisted mingling, but the heart of Wood's intent was evident and in many places she was able to evoke a sense of place and time and persona that charged the air. Wood has an original sensibility and the gifts to create a world onstage unlike what's been seen locally. There's a very special spark here....

Both works are still early in their development. They are, however, far enough along to provide much laughter and several brief flashes of illumination. The world looks a little clearer after beholding the multitudes in Ms. Lang and Ms. Wood. -- Robert Faires

Works by Roi L. James: Simply Beautiful

Tarrytown Gallery,
through August 30

Roi L. James is not one for blazing trails into unchartered territory. Rather than wile away his artistic hours trying to discover a revolutionary style or technique, James dips his brush into the palettes of masters from the past, perfecting what many consider the foundations of art: the relationship between light and shadows, and the essence of the human form.

What's so unusual about James' exploration of classic techniques lies in the paintings' total absence of overt modernization. It's certainly common for contemporary artists to tap into styles popularized from past art movements, but it often occurs with a heavy dose of modern influence. Not so with James' work; there is no obvious Nineties twist here, at least not on the surface. No hint of modern-day trials, no socio-political commentary, no Newt Gingrich-cum-Machiavelli. These works are formal, restrained, and yet -- without a doubt -- hypnotically beautiful.

James, a self-taught Austin artist, uses thick, syrupy oils that lend his work a fluid, velvety appearance. A top layer of vertical brush strokes creates a texture that catches light from all directions. James moves easily from large, figurative works to smaller landscapes, infusing all his paintings with a mystical, mysterious touch -- as though the paintings represent a premonition of the future, or a glimpse from a past life. His landscapes are nebulous, with barely discernible human figures vaporizing into the background. The viewer only knows the actual time of day in Dusk because of the work's name; from its appearance, it could just as well be dawn, or mid-afternoon on a hazy day. Golds, browns, and pale blues mesh into each other, prohibiting the land, water, and sky from having distinct forms. The lighting is dream-like and ambient, as if illuminating a well-worn memory.

The figurative works are a bit more detailed but still leave much to the viewer's interpretation. Guided by Light depicts an adult male with scarcely distinguishable wings rising from his shoulders. As he crosses his arms across his chest in a gesture of submission, he gazes upward with a look of wonder. His muscular body is bathed in the glow of a dim light suspended overhead, illuminating his smooth face and chiseled torso. This work shows no hint of turmoil or struggle, it does not attempt to shock or jolt. It does not even allow for nudity, as the figure is draped by a loin cloth. It's simply a beautiful painting -- a chance for the viewer to get lost in a gentle and ethereal moment.

-- Cari Marshall

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